Migrants and Porters at the Gate

The word “Morocco” conjures images of deserts, Bedouins, and souks in Marrakech, not the flamenco and Paella of Spain. Yet, there are two enclaves of Spain resting in Morocco, much to the chagrin of the Moroccans. Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish autonomous cities that lie along the Mediterranean Sea, nestled among the hills of Morocco. Both cities have been disputed by Moroccan claims, which are rejected by the Spanish government and local populations. Meanwhile, Ceuta and Melilla have become portals between Europe and Africa, both for people and goods.

A map of Ceuta and Melilla on the Mediterranean

It has been well documented that Africans are willing to endure many hardships to cross into Europe, with news stories popping up constantly about capsizing boats off the coast of Lampadusa, Italy or the coast of Greece. Ceuta and Melilla have also become a popular destination for African migration into Europe. The Spanish authorities contend that there are around 80,000 people waiting to cross into those two Spanish cities. The sheer volume of potential immigrants has led Spain to construct a triple layer of 20 foot high fences with barbed wire around Ceuta and Melilla, manned by border police with rubber bullets. These barriers were constructed at a cost of around 30 million euros, and are referred to by some Europeans as “walls of shame”.

The Valla de Melilla, or triple rows of barbed wire fence standing 20 feet high

These fences have not been a deterrent for desperate migrants looking to cross the border into Europe. There are frequent surges of people trying to cross the fences or swim to shore, hoping that their numbers will overwhelm the border guards. Earlier in February 2014, over 250 Africans  tried to simultaneously climb the fences or swim into the safety of Ceuta, while the Spanish border guards fired rubber bullets in an attempt to deter them. So far, 15 bodies have been found from that altercation. The interpretation of Spanish law is largely to blame for these surges. Would-be immigrants have not officially entered Spain until they have crossed the police line, not the border. The Spanish government is looking at reforming the law to ease the pressure. Currently, the migrants are housed in the Temporary Center for Immigrants and Asylum Seekers (CETI), which is chronically overcrowded. In 2013, the Ceuta CETI housed more than 700 people in a space built for 512. Large numbers of the migrants come from countries with whom Spain does not have treaties, giving the migrants the freedom to stay in Spain once they have their paperwork. On the Moroccan side of the border, the government has been trying to “regularise” undocumented migrants to allow them to work in Morocco, while the number of deportations of migrants to the Algerian border has decreased.

It’s not only people that try to cross the border clandestinely, as many Moroccan women attempt to take advantage of a loophole in Moroccan law through Ceuta and Melilla. Any goods that come into Morocco by foot are exempt from duties, as they are considered personal luggage, not goods for sale. Due to this loophole, many porteadoras, mostly Moroccan women, cross the border between Ceuta and Melilla into Morocco with 60 kg (132 lbs) of goods on their backs for as little as 3 euros a trip. Most of these women make 3 to 4 trips a day carrying more than their body weight in clothes, blankets, and other goods. In 2011, this trade was estimated to be worth 15 billion dirhams, or $1.5 billion, all untaxed. Up to 90 million euros is also paid in bribes every year, mostly to Moroccan border guards, according to Moroccan weekly Al Ayam. While these may seem like difficult and hellish conditions, these jobs support 45,000 people directly and 400,000 indirectly, highlighting the importance of cross-border trade and migration. Still, there is a danger, with porters dying every so often, trampled under the crowds of people loaded with kilograms of goods.

The porteadoras, or mule women, carrying goods across the border into Morocco

While these enclaves may seem small and unimportant, Ceuta and Melilla mean so much more to people who depend on them for their livelihood or their freedom into a new life. As much as they cause headaches for Spain, Morocco, and the European Union, there is no easy answer to resolve the issue. These European oases will continue shining like beacons, attracting the weary and desperate from the African continent.

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